When Europe stole from Islamic architecture

Historian Diana Darke speaks about her book at ThinkFest
Feb 15, 2021
Photo: Facebook/Afkar e Taza ThinkFest
Photo: Facebook/Afkar e Taza ThinkFest
Photo: ThinkFest
Photo: ThinkFest
Photo: ThinkFest
Photo: ThinkFest

We are calling the Arab Muslims thieves in the West when, in reality, we stole things from them.

Diana Darke, a Middle East cultural expert and a Syria specialist, said this on Friday while explaining the title of her book Stealing from the Saracens: How Islamic Architecture Shaped Europe. She was in conversation with architect Raza Ali Dada on the second day of ThinkFest 2021.

The book unravels the history of several of Europe’s landmark buildings whose architectures are based directly on early Islamic architectures.

‘The double irony’

Some people found the book title highly controversial, wondering how Darke could use the word “steal” for the West. Her intention was not to keep the word restricted to its literal meaning, but to give it an ironic touch. “Saracens (Arab Muslims) is a derivation of the archaic Arabic word “Saraca”, which means looters or thieves,” the historian explained. “In the West, we’re calling the Arab Muslims looters when, in reality, we stole things from them. It’s a double irony.”

Photo: Facebook/Afkar e Taza ThinkFest

Darke was triggered to delve deep into the Western architectures and their history after Paris’ landmark Notre Dame Cathedral went up in flames on April 15, 2019. Darke said there was an outpour of grief that a “French identity” was on fire, but the incident prompted a completely different response in her.

Photo: AFP

“Most of the cathedral’s features could be traced back to the Middle East and the Arab World,” said Darke. Therefore, it was one of the book’s objectives to set the record straight on Notre Dame’s history.

Conflated identities

Saint Denis of France is yet another conflated historical figure whose statue stands on the front façade of Notre Dame. The saint had his head chopped off for his Christian beliefs by Roman soldiers. While Darke was researching for the book, she uncovered that there were three people who shared the same name, and the Denis at Notre Dame turns out to be a Syrian mystic monk whose influential writings shaped the Gothic architecture in the 5th century. One of the reasons their identities were conflated was because the clergymen, who happened to be the only literate individuals, wrote and recorded identities however it suited them. No one was in a position to challenge it.

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Another example Darke employed was of a dome from the St Paul’s Cathedral in London. According to her, the cathedral’s architect Christopher Wren “explicitly” stated in his memoir that he had used the Saracen vaulting on the inside of the dome. What we call the Gothic style should rightly be called the Saracen style, Christopher said. The dome is featured on the book cover.

Early Christian architectures

The world’s most extraordinary early Christian architectures are found in the north of Syria. “When I talk about Syria, I don’t mean the modern, damaged and amputated Syria, but the Roman and Ottoman province of Syria, which was enormous and also covered the Jerusalem,” said Darke.

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She said over 2,000 architectures from the 4th, 5th and 6th centuries are collected in the medieval province, which represent the most incredible repository of Christian architectures. Pilgrims from all over Europe visited Syria and took home ideas about how to elevate such structures. The local stonemasons here had unmatchable skills and a sharp eye for art.

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Dome of the Rock—the first Islamic statement building

When the Muslims first came to Syria, they were thought to be some heretical Christian sect. It was, however, the Dome of the Rock, built by the Umayyad ruler Abd al-Malik Ibn e Marwan in the 7th century CE, that announced the Muslims’ distinct religion in the region.

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The Dome was the first Islamic statement building that incorporated a variety of features. In a first, its decorative designs, blue mosaics, were on the outside, and all forms of arches such as the pointed, semi-circular and trefoil arches, which never appeared in any of the existing Christian architectures in the empire, were erected inside the edifice.

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In the Syrian capital Damascus, there was a temple of Aarameans to the River God, which was turned into a Temple of Jupiter by Romans and then into the Cathedral of John the Baptist by Christians. For the next hundred years, the Muslims and Christians shared the building until they ran out of space. The Christians were then granted land for four churches and after the Muslims took over it, the architecture was turned into the Umayyad Mosque featuring green and blue mosaics. It brought a number of blended features to the mosque, including the “Jesus minaret”.

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The Umayyad palaces were rich in stonework that Darke describes as “full of energy”. Another indigenous Islamic innovation is the rose window found by excavators from a ruined Umayyad palace (the discovery also included fragments from stained-glass windows).

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The same windows were constructed at the Chartres Cathedral in the 12th century in London.

The geometric mastery

The Umayyad’s rule came to an end with the Abbasids’ arrival in 750 CE, who killed off most of ruling family. But a prince named Abd ar-Rahman escaped Syria and set up the Umayyads in Spain. The Cordoba mosque, which is now a cathedral, was built by Rahman as a recreation of the Umayyad Mosque. The geometric features of this mosque were examined by Spanish architectural engineers a few years ago, who were flabbergasted. “It’s a supreme example of geometric mastery,” said Darke, adding that the magnificent geometric ceiling never needed a structural repair in its entire 1000-year existence.

Photo: Facebook/Afkar e Taza ThinkFest

“It was the most perfect thing those architects have seen,” she remarked. “The masons who worked at Cordoba were overwhelmingly Muslims. The geometric knowledge they brought to Spain was not yet known in Europe.” The colossal architecture featured every “inconceivable” type of arch and the masons’ names are displayed on a wall in Cordoba’s court.

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The military borrowings

The Château Gaillard fortress in France was an exceptionally innovative architecture of the 12th century. It was built on the orders of the English King Richard the Lionheart on a cliff overlooking the Seine River. The Crusaders had studied and understood the superiority of a number Islamic military structures in the Arab World and adopted them. The scalloped walls around the fortress deflected attacks from the enemies.

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“Venice is also very Islamic,” said Darke. “Scholars have proved this time and again.” She referenced Deborah Howard, a professor of Architectural History in Cambridge, who has devoted 10 years studying Venice and proving connections between its architectures and those of the Muslim world. A number of key features of buildings in Venice are borrowed straight off the architectures in Cairo.

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The Revival period

The 13th-century Cathedral of Burgos in northern Spain and Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, which has been in progress for 100 years, feature carvings from the Umayyad architectures.

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The Big Ben in London also has pointed arches, so does the National Cathedral in Washington.

Photo: Facebook/Afkar e Taza ThinkFest
Photo: Facebook/Afkar e Taza ThinkFest

“The US Capitol dome is a copy of the Islamic double dome,” said Darke. “Many academic buildings in America borrow the Gothic style from the Arab World.”

Photo: Facebook/Afkar e Taza ThinkFest

When asked by Dada how Darke’s own revealing researches have impacted her, she said she now views these architectures with “new eyes”. Diana added that it is important to understand that we are all interconnected and have learnt from one another.

She responded to the criticism by saying that those unhappy with her work are very few. “The bad reviews come from the establishment comprising 60 or 70 white men who have a very European way of looking at things.”

She added there has been a highly positive response from the youngsters, who are more open to look into the history and learn from it.

Darke's other works include The Merchant of Syria and My House in Damascus.

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